Homeless man’s death stirred a furor

May 14, 2012

By Steven Greenhut

SACRAMENTO — Those who don’t understand why Fullerton residents are about to recall three of their city councilmen on June 5 ought to spend 33 minutes watching the videotape that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas released of Fullerton police officers confronting and then beating an unarmed homeless man named Kelly Thomas, who died from the crushing injuries.

The black-and-white surveillance tape caught the horrifying July confrontation in vivid detail, and anyone who can get through it without crying or feeling nauseated is an insensitive person indeed. We see a large officer, Manuel Ramos, responding to reports of someone breaking into cars at the city bus depot, approach the scraggly Thomas. Thomas gives him some lip, but doesn’t act in a threatening way.

Ramos puts on what the district attorney has called a “show,” as he slowly slips on latex gloves, twirls his baton and then says, “[S]ee my fists … these fists are going to f— you up.” Another officer comes in and starts swinging a baton at Thomas, who cries out in pain. As the D.A. explained, a third officer, Jay Cicinelli, uses a Taser to shock Thomas and then hammers him in the face with the blunt end of the Taser, as Thomas’ blood pooled on the ground. Other officers arrive later in the struggle and pile on to Thomas, who repeatedly yells, “I can’t breathe,” and “Daddy.”

A judge watched the tape and listened to three days of testimony this past week before ordering Ramos and Cicinelli to stand trial, the former for second-degree murder and the latter for involuntary manslaughter. As Rackauckas told the judge during the preliminary hearing, the officers “crushed the life out of” Thomas. Ramos, the D.A. said, “turned a routine encounter into a brutal beating death.”

So, what about the recall? Why blame police cruelty on councilmen Dick Jones, Pat McKinley and Don Bankhead? The answer is obvious. After this gruesome event, when many Fullerton residents were consumed by anger and demanded answers, their leaders failed them. The police chief took vacation, then went on disability leave, and then retired.

That left the council to take charge. Two council members, Republican Bruce Whitaker and Democrat Sharon Quirk, called for openness and demanded investigations. But the three others, the majority, denied the obvious, defended the officers and joined in a disinformation campaign.


It was bad enough that the Fullerton Police Department was putting out false information (i.e., claiming that officers suffered broken bones after a supposedly brutal fight with Thomas), but here’s what Mayor Jones said, which is as insensitive as it is idiotic: “I’ve seen far worse injuries that are survivable. I don’t know why he died.” Thomas, 37 and mentally ill, was physically fine, then was beaten to a pulp — something now undeniable, thanks to the video — and these city “leaders” couldn’t figure out what killed him.

Furthermore, the three councilmen opposed releasing the video to the public. They backed the department and ran from questions. McKinley, a former Fullerton police chief who hired the officers involved in the beating, wanted to keep the officers on the street during the death investigation. These three didn’t seriously question the police department, which confiscated the cameras of bystanders who witnessed the altercation, and allowed the officers to watch the video and get their stories straight before giving their testimony to investigators.

Jones referred to the peaceful citizens of his city who were protesting the Thomas death and the way the authorities handled it as the equivalent of a “lynch mob.” Can you understand the frustration?

“The community was crying out in anger,” said Fullerton businessman and blogger Tony Bushala, who is leading the recall movement. “They wanted leadership. Not only did Mayor Jones and councilmen Bankhead and McKinley fail to lead, but they joined with those who downplayed this horror. They tried to cover it up and circle the wagons. Their actions were cowardly.”


Prior to the Thomas case, Fullerton’s police department had been beset by recent scandals, including officers accused of theft, illegal drug use and even having sex in a squad car. As someone who has covered police-abuse issues, I’ve seen the same thing play out — officials obfuscate and protect the officers, no matter the circumstances. Their unions protect the officers. The police department releases only that information that supports its side.

District attorneys don’t often prosecute such cases, but kudos to Rackauckas for being a leader in this situation. But it’s crucial to understand the depth of failure provided by those three council members who refused to live up to the responsibility vested in them. A recall — especially given the city’s mismanagement on other issues — is an admirable way for the public to issue a vote of no confidence.

Jones, Bankhead and McKinley have been advocates for eminent-domain-abusing, tax-squandering redevelopment projects throughout downtown Fullerton. They have failed to rein in pension costs. McKinley is a pension-abuse poster child, a double-dipper who receives $215,000 a year. All three men defended a water tax that has been ruled illegal, with McKinley complaining about “knee jerk” efforts to return the money to the public.

These are solid recall rationales. Admirably, the recall effort is remarkably nonpartisan — the replacement candidates come from across the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, the Orange County Register’s Editorial Board didn’t fully support this heart-felt political revolt, as it argued, “The citizens who voted [the three councilmen] in and now are disgruntled should vote them out during a regular election cycle.” The Register had no such qualms about backing the recall in 2003 of Gov. Gray Davis, for similar lack-of-leadership reasons.

The release of the video reinforces the wisdom of the recall. A recent news article explained that “legal experts caution that the footage doesn’t tell the entire story,” but we don’t need experts to tell us the truth, now obvious to anyone who can access YouTube. And we don’t need experts to tell Fullerton voters what to do about three councilmen who acted in a craven and unconscionable way.

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